Tag Archives: Belgrade Theatre Coventry

The Cat’s Pyjamas

PUSS IN BOOTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 29th November, 2019

 

This is the first pantomime of the season for me and it’s a cracker.  Belgrade stalwarts Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth return for the umpteenth year on the trot for the rarely staged story of a crafty cat who helps his master to social climb his way to the palace, defeating a terrible ogre along the way.  The pair work superbly as a double act, with Lauchlan as the dame, Matilda Pudding, and Hollingsworth as her son, Simon.   They are also superb on their own, with Hollingsworth in particular working the audience.  His persona is cheeky and easily annoyed; the comic timing is impeccable.  Lauchlan gives a masterclass in panto-damery, with a succession of ridiculous outfits, charming humour and an irrepressible sense of fun.  Lauchlan also writes and directs, and is clearly some kind of genius.

Iain Lauchlan (Matilda Pudding) and Craig Hollingsworth (Simon Pudding) - credit Robert Day

The Puddings: Matilda (Iain Lauchlan) and Simon (Craig Hollingsworth) Photo: Robert Day

The rest of the cast, for the most part, rise to the standard of the star pair, given the stock limitations of their roles.  Aimee Bevan warms into her duties as our narrator Fairy Flutterby; David Gilbrook is suitably doddery as good King Colin; and Miriam Grace Edwards makes a gutsy Princess Sophia.  As the villain, evil jester Victor Grabitt, Peter Watts is enormous fun, sinister, snide and camp in the melodramatic sense, he is a joy to watch.

The chorus is fleshed out with a troupe of local children, who tackle Jenny Phillips’s choreography with panache.  Among the grown-up dancers, Dylan Jones distinguishes himself with some spectacular urban moves, as well as an engaging sense of humour.  Daniel Teague appears as the Ogre, in a delightfully scary moment – this show has plenty to engage the children and get them shouting and pointing at the stage.

In the title role, Joanna Thorne is dashingly heroic with a lively touch of comedy.  The role is a blend of principal boy and a skin part, but it also lets girls in the audience that females can be proactive.  Thorne has a strong singing voice – it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more of it.

Lauchlan’s script successfully combines traditional routines with bang up-to-date new elements: we are invited to submit ogre-faced selfies to an Instagram account during the interval; Simon Pudding first appears via face-time… Lauchlan thereby upholds the audience expectations of the form, while keeping the form fresh and current, and of course there is plenty of saucy humour to keep the adults laughing.

Non-stop fun from start to finish, this is a refreshing change from the ‘big’ pantos that always do the rounds (the Aladdins, the Cinderellas, the Dicks) and a fantastic way to get into the festive spirit.  As ever, it’s great to see such a diverse audience at the Belgrade, demonstrating that pantomime truly is for everyone and that theatre can bring us together.

Joanna Thorne (Puss in Boots) and Peter Watts (Victor Grabbit) 2 - credit Robert Day

Joanna Thorne as Puss in Boots and Peter Watts as Grabitt (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

 


Terribly Funny

HORRIBLE HISTORIES: Terrible Tudors

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 23rd October, 2019

 

Based on the popular series of children’s non-fiction books by the extremely popular and prolific Terry Deary, this show by the Birmingham Stage Company is playing in tandem with Awful Egyptians, which I imagine is just as much fun.

A cast of three, led by Doctor Dee (played in this performance by director Neal Foster) take us through the reign of the Tudors, from the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field through to the succession of James I after the demise of Elizabeth.  Along the way, there are interludes examining other aspects of Tudor society, like the cruel punishments meted out to criminals (some hilarious practical effects here) and the disgusting elements of medical practice.

Foster is a delight, whether its in one of his many characters (including Henry VIII) or when he’s addressing the audience with a good old-fashioned ‘Shut your face!’.  He is supported by a more-than-able pair, Dross (Lisa Allen) and Drab (Izaak Cainer) who take on all the other roles, as well as being enjoyable characters in their own right.

The facts come as thick and as fast as the jokes.  The declamatory style of storytelling is leavened by silly voices and camp gestures, and the action is augmented by cartoony sound effects (thanks to Nick Sagar) and animated projections on the screen that forms the backdrop.  The performance style owes much to Monty Python and pantomime, and the script has a touch of the Carry-Ons, without the bawdiness.  There are plenty of mentions of poo and grisly deaths to keep the kids fascinated, while the adults will find much to enjoy in the execution (heh) of the comic business by these three talented players.

The second half has the added ingredient of 3D effects to make you flinch and gasp, as the Spanish Armada is blown to splinters and blood from the botched execution of Mary Queen of Scots splatters across the screen.  There are catchy songs, including one to help you remember the fates of Henry VIII’s wives, and even Will. I. Am. Shakespeare crops up with a version of I Gotta Feeling.  The anachronisms make the history accessible and keep the laughs coming.

And then, as the reign and life of Elizabeth come to an end, she recaps the dynasty, in a powerful moment from Lisa Allen, bringing depth and gravitas to the piece – but don’t worry, there’s another catchy song to round things off.

Thoroughly enjoyable, informative and hilarious, this Horrible History makes for Terrific Theatre.

1 Terrible Tudors by Birmingham Stage Company. Photo by Mark Douet

Terrible Tudors: Lisa Allen and Izaak Cainer are armed and dangerous (Photo: Mark Douet)

 


Body Politic

FRANKENSTEIN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 3rd October, 2019

 

Rona Munro’s new stage adaptation of the novel that gave birth to the genre of science fiction puts its author, Mary Shelley at the centre of the action.  Tightly wound, spirited and full of youthful vigour, Mary is bursting with creativity as, before our very eyes, she rights the book that will render her immortal.   She narrates, breaks the fourth wall, and even collaborates with her characters as she starts and stops the story – we, of course, know how it will turn out, but it’s an effective and stylish way to present events we have seen portrayed time and time again.

As Mary, Eilidh Loan is a dynamic stage presence, hugely entertaining, wry and knowing, transmitting Mary’s passion to get her story written.  Her characters, seemingly under her control, are played by a strong ensemble: Ben Castle-Gibb is excellent as the driven Victor Frankenstein, showing his descent into obsession and insanity with great power; Thierry Mabonga is strong in three different roles, the salty Captain Walton, young William Frankenstein, and Victor’s best mate Henry; Greg Powrie brings authority to his roles as Victor’s father, and Waldman the doctor who recruits Victor as his assistant.  Natali McCleary brings vulnerability and strength to Elizabeth, but it is Michael Moreland as the ‘Monster’ who captivates our attention, from the jerky movements that bring him to life, to his augmented voice.

Becky Minto’s wintry set is striking and functional, giving two levels and a range of possibilities; her costume designs are elegantly tailored to denote the period.  Simon Slater’s discordant music and eerie sound design add to the tension, while Grant Anderson’s lighting bathes the action in cold beauty.  Director Patricia Benecke makes sparing use of shadowplay and mist for atmosphere and effect, and on the whole, this is a gripping and inventive retelling.  Oddly though, very little sympathy is elicited for the Monster – the script allows him no opportunity to show his potential for goodness. We only see him as a killer, an angry reject of society, and that’s a shame.  It’s like he was built with a bit missing.

This production is a fresh take on the well-worn tale, in which Mary Shelley has a message for us today, for our government in particular, above and beyond the usual don’t-dabble-with-nature theme.  She says, “If you neglect those you are supposed to care for, the weak, the poor, their destruction will be your shame.”  The play goes to some length to bring out Shelley’s revolutionary politics.  Right on!

Michael Moreland (Creature) and Ben Castle-Gibb (Frankenstein) - credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan-033

Daddy issues: the Monster (Michael Moreland) and Victor (Ben Castle-Gibb) Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

 


Disappearing Act

THE LADY VANISHES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th September, 2019

 

Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of 1938, this brand-new production from the Classic Thriller Theatre Company, begins in Austria during the Nazi occupation.  Imagine, if you can, a world in which fascism is on the rise… Oh, wait.  The action begins with a train being delayed – Imagine if you can, the trains not running on time – Oh, never mind!  These modern parallels aside, this is an entertaining period piece, old-fashioned in both form and content.

Gwen Taylor leads the cast as the titular disappearing woman, the tweedy Miss Froy.  It’s not until she does her disappearing act, that the play picks up momentum.  Up until then, it’s been character after character charging around, a little too much exposition, perhaps.  Taylor’s Froy is spot on for dotty old English biddy, harmless and friendly; she comes to the aid of young Iris, who is, rather contrivedly, bashed on the head at the station.  Scarlett Archer does all the right things as the plucky damsel, distressed over the old biddy’s disappearance, while everyone around her denies Miss Froy even existed.  It’s an intriguing mystery and keeps us interested.  Director Roy Marsden does a bang-up job of bringing matters to a head by the end of the first act, with Iris’s desperation rising to a crescendo amid the consternation of everyone else.

The rest of the company includes some stalwarts of this kind of thing: the mighty Denis Lill is paired up with Ben Nealon as a pair of cricket-obsessed duffers who provide much of the show’s comedic moments; Mark Wynter combines silver foxiness with arrogance as an adulterous barrister, while Rosie Thomson is suitably despairing as his embittered mistress.  There is a cold, chilling turn from Andrew Lancel as dodgy Doctor Hartz, while Joe Reisig makes for an imposing presence as a Nazi official striding around as if he owns the train.  Providing support for Iris is the funny, handsome and charming Max (played by the funny, handsome and charming Nicholas Audley).

The transmutable set, designed by Morgan Large, serves as both station and train, including compartments, is impressive and, coupled with lighting effects from Charlie Morgan Jones, sound effects by Dan Samson, and subtle bobbing on the spot by the cast, the sensation of being on a train is superbly evoked.  Antony Lampard’s adaptation of the screenplay has a bit too much of the characters describing what they can see happening through the windows of the train but, that aside, the story builds to a climactic and thrilling gunfight and reaches a pleasingly romantic resolution.

Solid and dependable fare, the play delivers what you expect, with high quality production values and a skilled and effective cast.  Reliably gripping, this is an enjoyable night at the theatre.

Lady Vanishes hi res 2620

Scarlett Archer and Nicholas Audsley are not convinced by the delay-repay scheme

 


Rock Bottom

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th June, 2019

 

Oddsocks return, not only to Coventry, but also to Athens, the fictional Athens of Shakespeare’s romcom, for this new production that marks thirty years in the business.  Director Andy Barrow never fails to come up with new ideas to reinterpret and restage the Bard, with his pared-down cast and signature Oddsocks humour.  A stroke of genius is to have the ‘Mechanicals’ as builders working at Theseus’s palace: and so the set is initially draped in their dustsheets before ‘transforming’ into the forest.  Barrow himself appears as Bottom the Builder (yes, he can!) complete with beer belly and builder’s bottom.  We laugh straight away but even dressed like this, Barrow can wring nuances from his characterisation.  His Egeus is a blustering gammon, and his Oberon is a towering faun, with cloven hooves and curling horns.

Most of the humour, most of the playing, is done with broad strokes, and Barrow’s cast prove masters (and mistresses) of the in-house style.   Alex Wadham’s cocky Demetrius and desperately melodramatic Thisbe; Asha Cornelia-Cluer’s upper-class twit of a Hippolyta, her plucky Helena and graceful Titania; Peter Hoggart’s sheepish Lion – (Hoggart brings slapstick, physical comedy to his Lysander); and Christopher Smart’s easy-going Theseus and officious Peter Quince… Alice Merivale’s feisty Hermia and her energetic Scouse Puck… The entire ensemble works tirelessly to populate the scenes, adlibbing when they need to but also delivering Shakespeare’s verse with expression and conviction.  This is Shakespeare at its most accessible – the inclusion of popular songs, played live by this versatile cast, adds to the fun and to the story.  I’ve seen many a jukebox musical where the song choices don’t work anywhere near as well.  Hermia and Lysander give a rendition of The Corrs’s Runaway, Helena sings You Can’t Hurry Love, Bottom treats us to Passenger’s Scare Away The Dark (I suspect Andy Barrow would be a rock star in another life)… The whole thing ends with Oberon and the Fairies Dancing in the Moonlight.  And it’s a blast.

Of course, the play-within-a-play is achingly funny, with the added bonus of a member of the audience selected to portray the Wall, for a spot of good-natured victimisation.  Where some productions attempt to make us feel with Thisbe’s mock-plaintive words, Barrow goes all-out for big laughs.  And gets them.

A joyous version, both faithful and subversive, that shows Oddsocks are still at the top of their game after all this time.  Here’s to the next thirty years!

A Midsummer Nights Dream

It Takes Two: Oberon (Andy Barrow) and Titania (Asha Cornelia Cluer)


Worth a Gander

HONK!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th June. 2019

 

This musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling gives us the bird’s-eye view of life in a duck yard.  When the largest of four eggs hatches to duck-parents Drake (Chris Thomson) and Ida (Ellie Nunn), the poor soul to emerge from it faces mockery and rejection for being different.  “Ugly” sets off, inadvertently, on a journey until his true identity is revealed.  The message is simple and clear, and Anthony Drewe’s script is riddled with puns and animal-based idioms, ranging from corny to witty.  Aimed at a family audience, Drewe also includes the occasional risqué line to keep the grown-ups engaged.

Gregor Duncan is Ugly, a plucky and sympathetic figure, but it is Ellie Nunn as his mother who provides the emotional heart of the show.  Nunn is in great form – the songs are delivered with conviction and power.  In fact, the cast, whose choral singing is just lovely, do their utmost to sell the songs.  Some of George Stiles’s tunes are stronger and catchier than others but all of them are enriched by Anthony Drewe’s sophisticated lyrics.

It’s a small but hard-working cast.  Notable moments come from Peter Noden as a Black Country bullfrog and Emma Barclay’s haughty mandarin duck.  A highlight for me is a tango between two cats (Danni Payne and James Dangerfield).  Dangerfield in particular impresses with his villainous characterisation as the Cat, managing to be sinister and funny at the same time, using movement and physicality to enhance the role.  He also plays a mean violin, augmenting the band at the side of the stage, led by musical director Oli Rew.

It’s all well and good, amusing stuff, but I question some of the design choices.  The bird characters are totally anthropomorphised, with only orange stockings to signify their duck legs.  The Cat has ears poking through his hat.  But the three ducklings are puppets, with beaks, and umbrellas for bodies.  It’s a neat idea but seems to be at odds with everything else.  Similarly, the Bullfrog sports a spotted hoodie, but his Frog Chorus are goggle-eyed and green, and presented in a highly inventive way.  I think the production needs to decide which way it’s going to jump to give it a more coherent style.  I would have put beaks on the leads or flippers for their feet.  Or I would have done the puppets differently.  But that’s me.

There is much to admire and enjoy here.  Director Andy Room is not short of ideas: particularly effective is the swimming lesson that takes place on a couple of swivel chairs, and it’s great to hear a cast that can sing so well, with humour and emotion, elevating the rather slight tale into a piece that can be charming and delightful, if a little uneven.

S Rylander

James Dangerfield as the Cat (in the hat) and Gregor Duncan as Ugly (Photo: Scott Rylander)

 

 

 

 

 


Fare Play

APPROACHING EMPTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th March, 2019

 

Ishy Din’s new play is set in a small taxi firm in the North East, run by brothers Raf and Mansha.  The death of Thatcher has just been announced but, as we see from the way the action pans out, her legacy did not die with her.  Hard-nosed businessman Raf, obviously ailing from something, offers to let his brother buy him out.  Mansha seizes what seems to be a great opportunity, finding financial support to seal the deal from son-in-law Sully, and cab-driver Sameena.  The trio have big plans for the business except it quickly transpires they have been sold a pig in a poke…

It’s a conventional piece in terms of structure and presentation, but what sets it apart is how it brings the British-Asian experience to the fore.  Din’s writing is well-observed, naturalistic yet emotionally charged, and the characters are imbued with authenticity, thanks to the strong script and the excellent cast.

Kammy Darweish is superb as the downtrodden but optimistic Mansha, a man sold a dream that turns out to be a dud.  He could have wandered in from an Arthur Miller (All My Cabbies, perhaps, or Death Of A Taxi Operator) while Nicholas Khan is in perfect contrast as the smartly clad, tough-talking Raj.  Rina Fatania’s embattled and determined Sameena, working hard to get her kids back, is marvellous: we see how the attractiveness of the dream, the enticement of greed, can offer hope, and how devastating an effect it can have.  Nicholas Prasad is excellent as son-in-law Sully in a nuanced and credible portrayal, and there are powerful moments from Karan Gill as Shazad, Raf’s son, endangered by his father’s business practices.  Maanuv Thiara brings a touch of dark comedy and plenty of menace as Sameena’s thug brother, the true face of Thatcher’s legacy.

Director Pooja Ghal uses the close confines of Rosa Maggiore’s set to add to the tension.  The characters have little room for manoeuvre figuratively and literally, and when violence erupts it is all the more effective.

As TV commentary from Thatcher’s funeral drones on in the background, the play speaks to us today.  You can’t put money before people, is what it boils down to.  Making a living is important but making a killing makes you a c*nt.

A thoroughly absorbing drama, powerfully presented.  I’m tempted to say Ishy Din is the Asian David Mamet (and mean it as a compliment) but that would be a disservice to Din’s own distinctive voice.

Approaching Empty_Production_HelenMurray-82 (1)

Nicholas Prasad, Rina Fatania and Kammy Darweish (Photo: Helen Murray)